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Posts Tagged ‘Crooked Timber’

A recent discussion on Crooked Timber centers on whether higher education is due for a scandal. Daniel Davies argues that scandals typically involve things that are taken for granted in one domain being discovered by the public. Given this, Clay Shirky suspects that low teaching loads might lead to such a scandal. He writes:

What the public doesn’t understand (and what many academics don’t understand that the public doesn’t understand) is that the social compact between taxpayers and selective public colleges has been re-written. Up through the 1960s, state schools committed most faculty to teaching most of the time, while directing only a few institutions to hire and promote based on research. (Clark Kerr, PBUH, designed his famous Master Plan assuming that very few California schools should be able to offer Ph.D.s)

This limitation proved unsupportable. After WWII, research was where both the money and prestige was. This shift in our self-conception coincided with the spectacular but unsustainable support we got from the states after Sputnik. For fifteen glorious years, academies were funded as if we ran missile systems instead of monasteries. We used the money to reduce our teaching loads (in the old Carnegie model, a 4-4 load was considered full time) and allowed course release for anyone who brought in additional research dollars.

When our Cold War funding began to ebb in the mid-1970s, rather than go back to the classroom, our selective institutions began calling up an army of TAs and adjuncts to shoulder the teaching load, a transition so enormous that contingent faculty is now the majority, and we tenured faculty the minority.

As long as college was still cheap, and a degree consistently raised income, the public was largely indifferent to the increased reliance on contingent faculty to fill the gap left when we reduced our teaching loads. That period is ending. Constantly rising tuition and the emergence of a Bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite for middle-class life is exposing the American academy to a degree of scrutiny and skepticism that little in our history has prepared us for.

Shirky argues that recent events to increase teaching in the North Carolina system are emblematic of this sort of change.

The problem for colleges and universities is that as they have reduced teaching loads for faculty members, they have increased demands for research. Although I have a 3-2 teaching load and small classes, then, the demands for publication are much higher than at my previous institution where I taught a 3-3 load, where they were slightly higher than those at institutions with 4-4 loads (or higher). More publications are associated, somebody must assume, with more prestige (even if this is more closely related to endowments), making our institutions worth the high cost of attendance. I would argue, though, that publication expectations and teaching loads are out of alignment. I teach one fewer course per year than somebody in my position thirty years ago, but my publication expectations are an order of magnitude higher. As I wrote in my post on academic false consciousness:

Because administrators want to increase the rankings of our institutions, they want each generation of faculty to be better than those who came before. They want us to publish more and in “better” journals while teaching more students with fewer resources. They want us to become internationally-known experts in our fields while denying sabbatical requests that would allow us to finish a book. And we do it. … Administrators have continually raised the bar for tenure-track faculty members and rather than refusing to play their games, we buy into the idea that the administration’s view of the world is real and meaningful.

It seems like the logical result would be to reframe the expectations of faculty at many institutions, increasing teaching loads and decreasing publication requirements. It seems that there is room for a college or university to find success by increasing teaching loads but maintaining small class sizes and drastically reducing publication requirements, making its message to parents that their children will always have small classes and never be taught by an adjunct. This sort of change, though, would require faculty and administrators to be on the same page. Anybody who has sat through faculty meetings can also attest to the fact that logic is not always high on the list of things that are on display.

In my view, the institutions that are going to successfully navigate the transition that higher education is undergoing will be those that can most quickly figure out who they are and how they can best fulfill their niches. Those who try to continually operate under the rules of the old system likely have bleak futures.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about the impending doom of academia via your news feed.

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In the past, I’ve written about branding at small liberal arts colleges in terms of finding a niche and communicating that niche to prospective students, but John Quiggin had a great post at Crooked Timber last week about branding in higher education more generally. He writes:

First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness.

Later, he concludes:

Branding, as applied to higher education, is nonsense. Colleges are disparate communities of scholars (both teachers and students) whose collective identity is largely a fiction, handy during football season but of little relevance to the actual business of teaching and research. The suggestion that a common letterhead and slogan can “present an image to the world of a multifaceted, but unified, institution” is comforting to university managers but bears no correspondence to reality.

The idea of universities as corporate owners of brands is directly at odds with what John Henry Newman called “the Idea of a University.” To be sure, that idea is the subject of contestation and debate, but in all its forms it embodies the ideal of advancing knowledge through free discussion rather than burnishing the image of a corporation. In the end, brands and universities belong to different worlds.

All of this provides important context for the continued corporatization of higher education, leading to academic false consciousness. Go read the whole thing.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about the impending collapse of higher education via your news feed.

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Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber has a nice discussion of Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton:

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

The problem is that other students (all their subjects are women), who do not have the resources to get jobs in the industries to which the easy majors orient them, and who lack the wealth to keep up with the party scene, and who simply cannot afford to have the low gpas that would be barriers to their future employment, but which are fine for affluent women, get caught up in the scene. They are, in addition, more vulnerable to sexual assault, and less insulated (because they lack family money) against the serious risks associated with really screwing up. The authors tell stories of students seeking upward social mobility switching their majors from sensible professional majors to easy majors that lead to jobs available only through family contacts, not through credentials. Nobody is alerting these students to the risks they are taking. So the class inequalities at entry are exacerbated by the process. Furthermore, the non-party women on the party floor are, although reasonably numerous, individually isolated—they feel like losers, not being able to keep up with the heavy demands of the party scene. The authors document that the working class students who thrive are those who transfer to regional colleges near their birth homes.

I wonder how these processes work at smaller schools that emphasize the one-on-one advising of students. Is providing warning about majors enough, or is it likely to be seen by students as not supportive of their career goals?

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

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About a month ago, Corey Robin at Crooked Timber linked to a 1978 article by Vivian Gornick in The Nation. This article reminded me of some of my own thoughts on famous sociologists and academic false consciousness (but better written!). Bringing everything together is the final paragraph, which Robin also quotes:

Ruth Richards drove me to the station. As we sat in her car waiting for my train to come in she leaned back in her seat, lit a cigarette, then turned to me and said: “You know what keeps this whole thing going? What allows them to take themselves so seriously, and still go on behaving like this? It’s guys like my husband. My husband is a good man, a kind and gentle man, comes from a poor home, fought his way to the top. And he’s smart. Very, very smart. But you know? In spite of all that, and in spite of everything he knows, every morning of his life he wakes up, goes to the bathroom, starts to shave, and as he’s looking at himself in the mirror, somewhere inside of him a voice is saying: ‘Jesus Christ. I’m at Yale.’”

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When most people think of working as an adjunct instructor, they probably picture teaching a semester-long course for a few thousand dollars with none of the benefits enjoyed by tenure-track professors (you know, things like health insurance, job security, and office space). It turns out, though, that there is a better way. It involves rising through the ranks of the military (the business world would probably work, too), losing your job, and being hired to teach a course for $150,000 per year. You might think that this sounds impossible, but it isn’t. General David Patraeus has done it, so it must be an option that the rest of us have been overlooking. As reported by J.K. Trotter at Gawker:

In April, CUNY announced that Petraeus would do a stint as a visiting professor of public policy at the school’s Macaulay Honors College, leading a seminar on “developments that could position the United States…to lead the world out of the current global economic slowdown.” According to documents Gawker obtained from CUNY via a Freedom of Information Law request, the fallen war architect will net a whopping $200,000 a year for the course, which will total about three hours of work, aided by a group of graduate students to take care of “course research, administration, and grading.” (He will also throw in two lectures.)

This is a lot of money to spend on one person (CUNY could have hired a number of assistant professors or an army of adjuncts with that much money). Corey Robin discusses this, and the fact that the reported salary was downgraded (now it is only $150,000 – good thing he also has a job at USC!) after Gawker posted the story, at Crooked Timber:

I have no idea if Lalor is right about whether tax-payers are footing the bill for this celebrity hire or not. But let’s assume CUNY is securing private funds for it. Isn’t that in itself a terrible waste of resources? Private donations don’t just roll in; university fundraisers work and cultivate donors to make specific donations for earmarked funds. The notion that even one paid member of the university staff is working right now to secure private money to pay for this hire is itself a scandal.

It’s also indicative of a larger problem: CUNY is being run (into the ground) by a group of men and women with no sense of how to educate students, how to build (and pay) a first-class teaching staff, and how to manage a great public institution.

It is unfortunate that this story perpetuates that myth that teaching a three-credit-hour course only amounts to three hours per week of work, but it is hard to know how much work Patraeus will actually have to do given his graduate assistants. The fact that Patraeus was hired by CUNY at all also perpetuates the myth that anybody can teach regardless of training. On the other hand, it would be interesting to observe whether Patraeus’s students are better-behaved than typical college students and, if not, how he responds to them arriving late, falling asleep, and texting. Are push ups part of the CUNY curriculum?

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As a college professor, I am interested in depictions of college life. In addition to seeing whether they “ring true” with my own experiences, I like to consider how they might affect the perceptions of the general public regarding academic life. As a movie aimed primarily at children, Monsters University may be the first depiction of college life that many are exposed to. What, then, does Monsters University teach us about college life (other than the fact that imaginary institutions can have better-designed webpages than real ones)? (Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber covers some of this, but focuses more on the institutional aspects of the university.)

Lesson One: College is largely vocational. The students enrolled at Monsters University take courses that are very narrowly focused on particular employment outcomes. While the Scaring program is the most prestigious, there are also programs related to canister design and door making. As depicted in the movie, none of these programs prepare students very well for unforeseen changes in the workplace (such as those that occur in Monsters Inc., as Kieran points out).

Lesson Two: No matter how hard you work, you may not be able to attain your dream. The Scaring program at Monsters University highly competitive even though some students clearly have more innate talent for scaring than others. Applied exams mean that those who are books smart but lack this innate talent are likely to fail the program. It does not seem like there is much room for theoretical work in scaring (Mike Wazowski seems like a prime candidate for a Ph.D. in Scaring).

Lesson Three: You need to go to college to get the job you want, unless you don’t. Despite the applied nature of the courses, the link between education and employment in Monstropolis does not seem very strong. The closest analog in the American higher education system seems to be acting. Some actors undergo years of training at prestigious universities while others are discovered looking cute at the mall. It would have been interesting to see Pixar approach scaring as something more closely aligned to college athletics, with most monsters using college to continue doing something that they enjoy but a few in high profile programs using it to hone their skills for the big leagues and an even smaller number going directly from high school to the pros.

Lesson Four: Coursework is unimportant (especially courses outside of your major). Students at Monsters University are shown attending two courses during the movie. For a large portion of the movie the characters do not mention anything about class at all, focusing instead on an extracurricular competition. Since this competition takes place during the semester, I assume that these students were attending other classes. Of course, in a vocational system like this breadth doesn’t seem to be that important.

Lesson Five: College life revolves around the Greek system. The aforementioned extracurricular competition has the highest profile of all campus activities (it is sort of like the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter). Students must be affiliated with a fraternity or sorority to participate and even the Dean is heavily involved in the organization and outcome.

Lesson Six: Things will be okay even if you cheat. Without giving too much away, some of the students at Monsters University cheat. They are punished for doing so, but not to the extent that they are unable to fulfill their lifelong dreams.

Lesson Seven: Computer graphics are getting really good. Okay, this is not a lesson about college, but the level of technical detail in Monsters University is incredible, especially in the lighting and textures. The Blue Umbrella, the short that precedes the movie, is similarly impressive.

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A few years ago when a larger, textbook-sized version of the Kindle was released I called it “the beginning of the end for textbooks.” While the Kindle DX still exists, it is not currently advertised as a part of the “Kindle Family” on the Amazon homepage. Bigger, it seems, is not necessarily more popular. Two years ago, Apple unveiled the iPad, which also had potential for supplanting textbooks through its color screen and Apple’s media connections. Last week, Apple took its biggest step yet in that direction, revealing an updated version of its iBooks software (conveniently named “iBooks 2”) that is designed to make it easier to create textbook content for iPads. This extends beyond large companies to individuals who want to format course materials by embedding things like media and PDFs.

Given complaints about the (ever-increasing) costs of textbooks, the idea that digitized textbooks could be cheaper for students is promising. Of course, digitized textbooks give publishers more control over their product by reducing or eliminating students’ ability to resell their books at the end of the semester. Digitized textbooks, whether through an iPad, a Kindle, or a Nook, also increase the up-front costs for students to varying degrees. This may not be an issue for college students, who spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks in a given semester, but cost is a serious barrier to the adoption of digitized textbooks at the K-12 levels (and is even more problematic when damage and replacement costs are considered). I’m also in agreement with Kieran at Crooked Timber that we likely do not need videos and other crap clogging up our educational materials (as in Al Gore’s iPad “book”).

Two years after its announcement, I still don’t have an iPad. I’m actually much more interested in the ability to read and annotate PDF versions of journal articles than I am in the ability to create media-rich readings for my students. Nevertheless, I still think that my prediction from the iPad’s reveal could come true. At the time, I wrote, “In 2015 I’ll probably look back at this post from my own iPad while my students complete the course readings and take class notes on their own iPads and laugh at how foolish I was.” If prices can come down and devices like these can achieve ubiquity among students, last week’s Apple announcement may become the middle of the end for traditional textbooks.

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I recently purchased copies of Fabio’s Grad Skool Rulz for myself and some students who are planning to go to grad school next year (and yes, I paid for the “copies” that I gave to students). The question I always have about packaged collections of things that originated on the internet is whether it is worthwhile to purchase something that is essentially available for free. In this case, I think that the ability to send the entire package as a PDF that a student can save somewhere is probably a better way of delivering information than saying “there’s a series of blog posts about grad school – look them up!” Since none of the undergrads that I know regularly read sites like Scatterplot, OrgTheory, or Crooked Timber, this is also a way to introduce them to the world of academic blogging that they will surely become familiar with when they are procrastinating during grad school.

Overall, I think that Fabio does a nice job of discussing things that grad students should know. I went to grad school in a supportive environment where these issues could be openly discussed with advisors, but not everybody is so lucky. For prospective students, this makes choosing a graduate program incredibly important. For those who are already enrolled, the Rulz should help navigate potentially uncertain waters.

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Lots of people seem to have trouble with focus these days.  From kids texting, tweeting, posting racist comments on the internet, and yelling racist comments into the microphone of their online gaming system of choice to graduate students texting, tweeting, reading for comps, decrying racist comments on the internet, and updating their Facebook status while driving down the freeway, the world is constantly calling for our attention.  In response, those of us who want to get something done have to fight our chronic procrastination, often through attempts to minimize distractions.  Some have employed programs that limit web access while others have tried to recreate the Doogie Howser-esque writing environment of WordPerfect 5.1.

Now, there is another option.

As the developers state, “It’s a distraction-free writing environment that we call “ū—” (pron. “YOOOoooouuuuu…”). And, it’s going to change the way you think about thinking about maybe writing some day forever.”  This unprecedented freedom from distraction is achieved by a careful elimination of nearly everything, “including cruft like paragraphs, lines, and words. This is why ū— only displays the bottom half of one letter at a time. Talk about focus.”

Beyond the ability to focus, the developers recognize that what sets one program apart from another these days is customization.  This is where ū— prevails, offering an “endlessly re-customized combination of options” that includes the ability to:

  • Play non-distracting circus music every time you manage to finish a word
  • Enjoy the minty “DONNNNNNNNG!!!” of a distraction-free wind chime every 60 seconds—just to remind you that you’re really “in the zone”
  • Stay in non-stop touch with The Distraction-Free Community by showing distraction-free real-time Facebook and Twitter updates from your fellow ū—sers
  • Set which affirmations you’d like our lovable “Focus the Clown” to scream at you by random intervals. He’s focus-larious!
  • Set the “Angry Masturbation Break” timer to whatever interval suits you and your distraction-free genitals.
  • Say sayonara to the tick-tock of that distracting clock; “Tojo the Time-Teller” will announce the exact time every seven seconds, occasionally offering distraction-free encouragements in distraction-free pidgin English
  • Ask “Virtual Hemingway” to silently monitor everything you do and suggest when it’s time to try a new customized distraction-freeing setting. But, watch out! He might shoot your distractions and put them on his wall! Ha ha.

With this sort of customization at your disposal, how can ū— go wrong?  Your dissertation will be finished in no time!

Via Daring Fireball and Crooked Timber, which suspiciously quotes the same text as Daring Fireball…

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Once upon a time, my Facebook account was a peaceful place where I could converse with my grad school friends about grad school things.  Then my sister showed up.  Her statements, visible to all of my grad school friends, that I was “a dork” did not fit with the grad student identity that I had constructed.  Although I accept the fact that a large percentage of grad students are dorks, we prefer to think of ourselves as idiosyncratic intellectuals.  As George Costanza might say, worlds were colliding. Since that time, of course, the rest of the world has appeared on Facebook, changing the dynamics entirely, as a recent episode of South Park highlights.

A few days ago, the LA Times reported (via Contexts) that, “Just because popular social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, encourage members to use their actual identities doesn’t mean people are presenting themselves online the way they do in real life.”  Of course, for sociologists the idea that there is one representation of a person’s real personality is somewhat ridiculous.  This was highlighted by recent posts at Crooked Timber in response to Facebook Overlord Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that

“You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Personally, I find the idea that presenting yourself in different ways to different people can be seen as a lack of integrity by anybody outside of politics hilarious, and Healy links the idea to a potentially disastrous breaching experiment:

“Hey, I want to present the same public face to everyone, and see what happens! My hypothesis is that people will freak out and maybe some bad things will happen!”

Maybe Zuckerberg’s real goal with the increasingly complex Facebook privacy settings is not world domination through advertising but the elimination of a major element of social psychology!  For what it’s worth, Zuckerberg is currently failing because, despite the fact that family members can see my comments to family members and vice versa, I have not started making comments to my family members about the intricacies of life as an assistant professor, nor have I started making comments to my friends about how big of a dork I am.

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